Assess medical news correctly

Right or wrong? Myths or Facts? There are many falsehoods circulating on the subject of medicine. And it is not uncommon for our media consumption to result in incorrect information being remembered

Texted: False reports not only roll over us on the net

© plainpicture GmbH & Co KG / Lisa Krechting

Do you remember the marriage epidemic? It has been eight years since the fear of germs got around in Germany. Healthy young people suddenly developed severe diarrhea. There was internal bleeding and kidney failure. The cause was certain strains of the E. coli bacterium. Do you also remember the source of the pathogen? Wasn't it cucumbers?

If you agree now, you are certainly not alone. "And that even though the front page of almost every newspaper at the time said it wasn't pickles," says Philipp Schmid. Nevertheless, the psychologist is not surprised that many people think of green vegetables when they think of Ehec.

Schmid researches the processes of opinion formation at the University of Erfurt and knows that studies show: If we are confronted with something that is easy to remember, it gets stuck. After a while, the fact that the matter is not right is often forgotten.

Health hazard from false news

The fact that human memory sometimes weakens is not only annoying. In times when fake news is rampant, this can become a health hazard. Consumers are confronted with false reports, especially in the medical sector. "Vitamins Cure Cancer." "Plant extract can shed pounds."

Whether in social networks or with Dr. Google, on the advice shelf of the bookstore, at the newspaper kiosk or from the mouths of politicians: so-called fake news is everywhere. "They are not only increasing overall, but also disproportionately", complains Professor Gerd Antes from the German Cochrane Institute in Freiburg, which evaluates medical therapies on a scientifically sound basis.

In addition, false news is spread more often than facts, as an analysis in the journal Science shows. They often have everything that arouses interest: They are new, explosive, they serve common prejudices or wishful thinking. For example on the subject of vaccination. "You can find countless unproven claims about this," says Schmid, who worked on a guideline for the World Health Organization on how to deal with vaccine critics.

Medical myths on the web

Of the eight "most successful" false reports that were spread on the social network Facebook in 2017, two contained the untrue statement that unvaccinated children were "significantly less sick". The online network Pinterest has now reacted with a drastic measure: If you enter "vaccination" in the search field, you will no longer receive any hits. This is to protect consumers from dangerous false information.

Facts or fake? The question does not only arise on the Internet. The medical market is hotly contested. Drugs and therapies distributors are sometimes very active in getting positive reports in newspapers and magazines. They are not always recognizable as advertising.

Why false reports are so difficult to fight

But once falsehoods are in the world, they are difficult to get out of your mind. "If you want to refute medical myths, you have to name them," explains Schmid. But that's when you come across it in the first place. And as the Ehec cucumber shows: after a while, the myth often becomes the truth in the memory.

But memory lapses aren't the only problem in the fight against false news. When it comes to opinions, something much deeper often plays a role: our identity. Beliefs are the building blocks of our worldview and therefore part of our personality.

Leaving long-cherished views is almost like giving up a piece of yourself. "Very painful," says Schmid. When confronted with arguments that contradict their views, those who are convinced often react with crude defenses. Sometimes they shoot themselves even more into their false beliefs as a result.

Facts vs. worldview

US psychologists have examined this effect using the example of conservative Americans. The test subjects were presented with a quote from ex-President George W. Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the war. They then read a comprehensive refutation of this claim. After that, however, many were even more convinced that the weapons had existed. Anyone who hopes to lecture militant anti-vaccination opponents or climate change deniers has already lost. "You just waste time and energy here," is Antes' experience.

Rationality is not the top priority when forming an opinion. "We like to pick out the facts that confirm our view of the world," says Schmid. To be understood by the social environment often seems more important to us than the search for the truth. Too many facts and arguments are more of a deterrent than convincing.

Reveal the writers' strategies

Success in raising awareness is therefore primarily achieved by vaccinating consumers against false information, for example by making them familiar with the typical strategies of their authors. One of them: making impossible demands.

"A vaccination should be 100 percent safe before I use it." Who wouldn't want to agree to that? "But there is no such thing with any medical product," emphasizes psychologist Schmid. "Guaranteed no side effects." Anyone who claims this about therapy has also been disqualified, according to Antes. "Conversely, that also means that the therapy is guaranteed to have no effect."

Criteria for serious reporting

If reference is made to research results, the source of which remains unnamed, this should also make one skeptical. "A single study never provides proof," says the expert on scientifically based medicine. Only an analysis of the entire current study situation, such as the Cochrane Institutes around the world, provides information.

Another important question is: who is behind the information? Are there any financial interests? A look at the imprint of the medium often helps. If there are indications of purchase opportunities or product names are mentioned in the report, one should be vigilant. Even one-sided euphoric or devastating texts are not very trustworthy. Serious reporting presents different points of view and names several sources.

In order to make sure that a claim from the medical field is correct, you can check it on reputable portals. For example at the Federal Center for Health Education, the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care or the websites of Cochrane Germany and Austria.

Remain critical

When it comes to identifying fake news, common sense can often help. Wouldn't everyone have a bikini figure if herbal pills were the way to do it? Would more than 200,000 people in Germany die of cancer every year if it could be cured with vitamins? Sometimes it is our deep-seated hope for miracles that makes hoaxes so successful.

The most effective means of counteracting this is therefore to remain critical, even when it comes to your own convictions and wishes. And occasionally refresh your medical knowledge while reading well-founded reports.

By the way: Fenugreek sprouts from Egypt are very likely to be the source of the Ehec epidemic in 2011. But this was never cleared up beyond any doubt.